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Breaking down the AL East

April 2, 2010

Who will come out on top?

When looking at the AL East, it’s arguable that the best three teams in baseball are in this division. The Yankees, Red Sox and Rays all are stacked with premium offensive players, good pitching and exceptional coaching, which makes this year’s hunt for October that much more interesting.

According to Tony Mazzeroti of the Boston Globe, over the last seven years, the AL wild card team has come from the East on six occasions, the lone exception coming in 2006, the only time that a Red Sox team built by Theo Epstein failed to qualify for the postseason. Overall, 13 of the last 28 AL playoff participants have come from the East, as have five of the last seven league champions.

With that in mind, here are my predictions:

Hitting

The Yankees finished first in runs scored, run differential and homeruns in 2009 and I predict a small drop-off in 2010. The subtraction of Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon will impact their power numbers, but I don’t think new additions Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson will give that much less than the two aforementioned players. I expect Robinson Cano to have a batting-title-esque year  and Granderson will hit 32 homeruns. Mark Teixeira and A-Rod will be in the top 5 for AL MVP.

The Rays edge out the Red Sox with a lineup that boasts the best third basemen in the AL in super-stud Evan Longoria, speedster Carl Crawford and potential comeback player of the year in BJ Upton. Don’t forget Carlos Pena, who before he broke his hand, led the AL in RBIs and HRs and is also in a contract year. Add in Jason Bartlett,  who hit .320 with 30 stolen bases and 14 jacks in 2009, as well as up and coming star Ben Zobrist who had 97 RBIs and 27 HRs, and that’s a pretty ridiculous lineup.

The Red Sox have two great hitters in their lineup — Pedroia and Youkilis — and a bunch of guys who are a coin flip on whether they will be better-than-good in 2010. Jacoby Ellsbury is the closest to being in the Youk/Pedroia conversation, but JD Drew, David Ortiz, Victor Martinez, Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro and Mike Cameron DO NOT strike fear into any Yankees or Rays fan. Though the Sox led the league in runs scored at home last year, there isn’t a 30-HR hitter in their lineup, which can’t be said about the Yanks or Rays. I’m not saying you need a 30-HR guy to win —the Yankees didn’t in 1998 and that team was the BEST EVER — but I think it will hurt the Sox this year.

Ranking: Yankees, Rays, Red Sox

Starting Pitching

This is an easy one. Though the Yankees rode their top three horses through the 2009 playoffs to their 27th WS championship, the Red Sox front three can easily be No. 1’s for 90 percent of teams in MLB. Throw in venerable veteran Tim Wakefield, 50/50 Dice-K Matsuzaka and rising star Clay Bucholz and that’s a sick rotation.

The Red Sox don’t have an ace like CC Sabathia, though Jon Lester is close, but after that, it’s advantage Red Sox.

The Rays have some could-be superstars on their staff, and I fully expect good seasons out of James Shields and Matt Garza. But there is too much youth, not enough veteran leadership and question marks on Wade Davis and David Price to put them ahead of the Yanks.

Ranking: Red Sox, Yankees, Rays

Bullpen

This one is tough. Yankees have Mariano Rivera, Joba Chamberlain, young-gunner David Robertson and Damaso Marte. Marte, who had an exceptional 2009 playoffs, is the question mark for me. The Yanks traded away lefty Phil Coke, making Marte the only lefty out of the pen. Though Coke had some really down moments in 2009, he did help the Yanks when Marte was out with shoulder fatigue in the first half.

The Red Sox have three studs in their pen — Jonathon Papelbon, flame-thrower Daniel Bard and Hideki Okajima. Besides that, their pen is suspect. Add in the blown save in the ALDS by Papelbon in Game 3, and I think the Red Sox pen is softer this year without Takashi Saito and Billy Wagner.

The Rays acquired Rafael Soriano, who will do well in replacing perennial bum Dan Wheeler and old man Troy Percival. But JP Howell and Grant Balfour are the key. When the Rays made their run in 2008 to the WS, it was their pen that was its strength. If Howell and Balfour don’t improve from last year, the Rays pen is sunk.

Ranking: Yankees, Red Sox, Rays

Defense

Though the Yankees had a record 18 game error-less streak last year, this is the one area that the Yankees fall behind the Rays and Sox. Tex, Jeter and Cano are the stud defenders in the field — two Gold Glovers and they robbed Cano — but besides them, the outfield is soft, as well as at catcher and third base.

The Rays outfield is sick and their infield, anchored by Longoria, Pena and Bartlett is pretty good.

The Red Sox, who have prided themselves on pitching and defense for 2010, have the best defense of the three teams. Youkilis, Pedroia Cameron and Ellsbury are great defenders, and even though catcher is WEAK for them — they gave up 151 stolen bases in 2009! — I give them the edge.

Rankings: Red Sox, Rays, Yankees

Predictions:

If the Yankees can avoid injuries to their pitching staff and older players, I can’t see them not winning the division. They won 103 games and went 12-10 in April without A-Rod. The real question is will the Rays top the Sox for the Wild Card? My answer: Yes. If what I think will happen happens — Longo rakes, Upton steals 35 and hits 30 HRs, Crawford hits .310 and Pena puts up 43 jacks — I don’t think the Red Sox have the firepower to keep pace. Even with their vaunted staff, I see the Sox losing a lot of 2-1 games. Unless they make a trade by the July deadline to improve an aging, powerless lineup, the Sox are out of October

AL East Standings: Yankees 101 wins, Rays 95 wins, Red Sox 93 wins

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